The Canopus Percussion Ensemble

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Strange attractors with penetrating vision

[ Craig+Malc+Tubano photo by Ian Gregory | Craig, Malc and Tubano photo by Ian Gregory ] Craig Morrison and I met while 'studying' at the University of Hertfordshire in 1990. We both had a fascination for percussion and improvisation, and spent many nights experimenting with 4-track tape recorders. Gradually other people got involved, resulting in events such as The Crown Affair, a performance given as part of the Lanlivery Flower & Music Festival at The Crown public house, Lanlivery, Cornwall, on 25th September 1993, and later The Leavesden Road Affair, an experimental improvised session in Watford, 1995.

[ Master Drummers of Africa photo by Craig Morrison ]It wasn't until we attended African drum classes in London with master drummers David Oladunni, Nana Tsiboe, Mamadi Kamara, Fats Ramoba Mogoboya, Adesose Wallace, Sam Maitland and Ali Bangoura, that we realised quite how much more there was to this drumming business than meets the eye, and serious practice brought results. The energy attained by a room full of people all playing set patterns based on ancient tribal rhythms was intense, something rarely found in our culture. Many fabulous times were had after classes, when the teachers would invite everyone back to their homes for more festivities - they are such welcoming and generous people, and oh, the singing! Fats' wife Nomsa sang with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon's "Graceland" album, and finding oneself suddenly amongst such uplifting harmonies was incredibly emotional. It sort of wakes you up, lifts you right out of everyday life onto a different plane.

[ Ade leading jubilant crowd at Tribe of Doris | Adesose Wallace ]The name Canopus came from Doris Lessing's amazing Canopus In Argos series of novels, which I urge everyone to read. We sought to spread creative energies through improvisation and new musical forms, focusing on the spiritual vibes and feelings of well-being discussed in Doris' books. (As far as I know, the Tribe of Doris has nothing to do with her, apart from good vibes :-)

A bunch of us from college were lucky enough to all share a (detached) student house with a wooden-floored music room where my piano lived alongside lots of drums, resulting in many recording sessions. Following exams, we retired en masse to the woods near the University's Bayfordbury campus for camping and music, only to be discovered by (our own) lecturers who thought their grounds had been invaded by New Age Travellers! The summer continued to develop our group activities - from my diary:

Strawberry Fayre, Cambridge, 10th June 1995 [Canopus UK debut]

[ Canopus calling card ]Gav, Craig, Mel, Me, Louise, Maria, Adam, Harley & Andy drive in convoy (Cavalier, Golf, Beetle). Arrive at 4pm. We wander round en masse for hours before sitting down for a jam. Serious attentions aroused. Then Louise suggests we go over and jam with a guy near the percussion stall. BIG move! A serious atmosphere comes together instantly, and a hundred people are suddenly entranced and sent spinning around, many others watching. Applause and £20 donations! After two hours of frantic grooves we realise it's raining and the festival has ended! The crowd won't leave, so we decide to party on in a large circular tent. Here things only get more intense. Totally inspired cowbell debut improvisation blows me and everyone away into Latin mayhem. Craig hits a serious flute peak on a jazz tip. Djembe Man's groovy friend gets us on an African vibe with frenetic dancing voodoo style, and controls my fingers telepathically, teaching me new beats. A seriously beautiful evening of totally inspiring proportions.

[ Canopus Percussion Ensemble flyer ]Canopus struck again the following weekend at the Streatham Common Afro Caribbean Jazz Festival in London, then the week after pulled off The Italian Job, playing in the Italian Gardens of University of Hertfordshire's Wall Hall campus, along with a huge line up of brass, guitars and keyboards.

Later in August, after months of living and recording together, we hit The Horn of Plenty in St. Albans with some deep African grooves, aided by DJ Spock warming up the crowd. In September we made Contact during The Barnet Incident, playing at the Rosa Morrison Centre for people with special needs and raising the roof; they were an incredible audience, and much energy was produced as people who never spoke suddenly began to voice their feelings with percussion...

[ Darrenji and I duelling with flowerpots ]Sadly all summers come to an end, and we were forced to absquatulate from our student house. Thankfully Ian had a place in Hatfield, and kindly let six of us move in! He shall be rewarded in The Next Life.

[ The Circle of Life photo by Ian Gregory ]On Valentine's Day 1996 we set up a big drumming session at The Boxmoor Arts Centre in Hemel Hempstead. Thirty people attended The Circle of Life, creating a monster groove; many long friendships began that night.

A few days later at New Moon, Craig and Mel moved out to Sydney, Australia, to become a percussionist and a dancer respectively, and those that remained gradually went their separate ways after college, each carrying the flame of Canopus within them.

Later on some good times were had up at The Cottage, a wild and remote place miles deep in the Kielder Forest in Northumberland, where we played drums on a hill, joined by echo spirits in a distant wood. A [ Malcolm singing 'Canopus' with The Emissaries, photo by Tilly ] song was born here, awaiting a future gathering of the tribes, but wasn't until a decade later that it got its first performance by some Canopus members at my Garden Party #1.

I am now doing my best to spread the happy vibes through my teaching with Drumming Is Fun. Meanwhile, our mission continues...

© copyright Malcolm Smith 2002-12-27 - last updated 2014-01-07 - links verified 2006-02-12